The creative process is never straightforward. Sabine takes you through the creation of one of her illustration series: thirty rabbits from Watership Down. From learning new skills, bumps in the road and some unexpected successes, you'll see the whole process from start to finish and learn how an artist puts together a series.
The most interesting thing about the creative process is that it's never straightforward. You can have the best laid plans, but rarely is that how the project progresses. Things never seem to turn out how you envisioned them at the start, but that's part of what makes the process so enticing. You never know what you're going to get. Surprises can be fun or frustrating, but usually a bit of both. There is no magic formula to get the results you want, but maybe I can shed some light on the process by sharing my own creative journey while creating a series of drawings based on the characters from Richard Adams' classic novel Watership Down.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. The real trick is picking which ones are worth pursuing. I was working on an ink drawing of a hare and meadow plants when I learned about Richard Adams' passing. The timing felt a bit eerie, but it struck me that I could very well be working on a Watership Down rabbit as I drew the sketch. I hadn't read the book in ages, but suddenly I felt inspired. I love drawing animals and plants and since most of the rabbits in the book have botanical namesakes, the idea of drawing a series with each rabbit surrounded by their namesake plant cried out to be made. However, this wasn't the only idea floating around in my head at the time. It took months before I decided it was something that I wanted to make a reality and I chose to do it in part because it seemed doable. I was looking for a compact project to do in a short amount of time and this one fit the bill. It also sounded like fun.
But I didn't want to start rolling out random drawings. I needed a plan, and in order to form one, I needed to do some research. I was also occupied with work for some time, but that only made me more determined to do this series when my schedule opened up again. Perhaps because of this long incubation period, my idea grew a little larger than usual. Normally I do drawings one at a time, but the scale for this project kept getting bigger. I had to put a cap on it. Thirty day challenges are big these days and I could easily find thirty rabbits in the book to draw, so thirty became the magic number for the series. I am realistic however, and I gave myself about two months to do everything from the research to the drawing. Then I would post my drawings one a day for thirty days on social media to share them with the world. It was an plan.
Research and Development
I re-read Watership Down, taking notes as I went about each rabbit. I didn't know which ones would make it into the final roster, so I took notes on all of them. Of course, the main heroes stand out (and the villains) and there are plenty of them, but after the main characters things got fuzzy. Were the hutch rabbits more important than some of the Effrafans? Who deserved to make the cut? My list ran long and out of the rabbits on the bottom I couldn't decide who would make it into the thirty. I decided to make my cuts during the next phase of development where, hopefully, I'd have a clearer picture of things.
There were still a few technical things to decide on: format, materials, distribution. Naturally I wanted to share the series, but that begs the question of venue. Online is of course the easiest, but even there, which platform do you pick? I had virtually no presence anywhere when I started this project, so I ambitiously aimed to post the finished series on a number of social media platforms at the same time. While tedious at first, I quickly grew used to posting on multiple platforms.
I really enjoy square format for drawings. That decision was easy, but I still needed to pick a size and went with 7x7 on 9x9 sheets on paper to give the drawings a large border. For materials though, I grew ambitious. I had been watching a lot of brush pen videos online and thought that the brush pen was something I'd like to learn. I've always stuck with technical (fixed width) pens or nibs, but imagine the results I could get with a brush pen! It would be a challenge to learn how to use a new tool in the middle of this project and yet, it would be the perfect opportunity. Talk about trial by fire.
One last constraint I made for the series was that I wanted soft borders. Essentially, the mass of the drawing would be it's own border using the organic shapes of the rabbits and plants to create the edge of the drawing. Each rabbit had to touch the border on at least one side (more if I could position it that way) and the flora would fill in the rest. Constraints are what give a series consistency and a distinct look. I hoped all my decisions would pull the series together into a cohesive body of work.
With the rules in place it was time to start brainstorming what each drawing would look like. I traced a bunch of squares onto newsprint and sketched out thumbnails of my ideas. Some rabbits I had a clear image for right away, but others took several attempts. This is how I planned the series for the most part, deciding which rabbit would be in what pose and where the plants would go in each square. I also tried to make things balanced so I didn't have a bunch of drawings that looked the same. At least in theory. It was hard to find unique poses for thirty rabbits. One blessing of doing the thumbnails though was that my list of characters became finalized. Of the rabbits on the bottom, some just had a better composition or more interesting plants to draw. I picked the thirty rabbits I would draw and completed a rough outline for each drawing. The cut was made. Sorry Boxwood and Haystack.
As one last effort at organization, I chose the best thumbnail for each rabbit and made a very rough value sketch for each one. I hoped that this would help in the final drawings to show me where I needed more line work or to make more darks and also to prevent me from filling in areas that should be left light. I was excited to see everything shaping up, but not all of my preparation would prove useful, as I would soon find out.
Drawing the Pencil Sketches and Bumps in the Road
Thumbnails in hand and reference photos picked, I was ready to start drawing. I was excited to start but nervous as well. What if this project didn't turn out? Well, I had lots of time to get the pencil drawings right before I started inking. No problem. I started with Hazel and he took me a few hours over the course of two days to get how I wanted him. I fussed a lot over him, redrawing the sketch several times, but I was fairly happy with it when I was done. The other rabbits went by much quicker as I got used to drawing the sketches. I was on a roll, but there were a few rabbits who gave me trouble. I put those aside to come back to later. I didn't want anything to slow down my momentum.
After I completed several pencil drawings, I decided to lay them out on the floor to get a better look at them. This was one of the best things I did because I noticed patterns in the drawings. The poses of the rabbits were naturally coming out in groups of three, or at least some of them were. I didn't want to repeat myself, but it seemed inevitable in doing thirty drawings of the same subject. However, after noticing the groups of three, I realized I could have ten groups with slight variations on a single pose and they looked good together.
The only problem was that I would need to re-work some of my ideas for this new idea to balance. It meant changing or outright scrapping some of my thumbnails. It was extra work, but I knew the results would be that much better for it and the finished body of work would look that much more cohesive. I decided to go with the new idea and I spent a couple of days reorganizing my work and making decisions. In the end I'm glad I did. I felt a lot more confident about the direction of the project and my enthusiasm for the project went up, keeping my momentum going right to the end of the sketches. By the time I had all thirty pencil drawings done, I felt pretty good about the project. That feeling didn't last long.
Inking and Self-doubt
I decided to start by inking Hazel. Everything starts with Hazel. He was the first thumbnail I sketched and the first drawing I laboured over. It made sense that he would be the first drawing to be inked, but should I really start with our hero? This is where doubt crept in about learning a new skill over the course of this project. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to learn the brush pen on this project. I was already struggling. Who was I to be drawing such iconic characters? I felt unworthy and I was constantly questioning my skill set. Throw in learning a new inking tool and my self-doubt started to reach critical mass. I must have held the pen above Hazel's sketch for a good long while, wondering how badly I was about to screw up. Then again, I told myself if I did that badly I could just trace out another drawing on a new sheet of paper and start over (since I transfer my sketches and don't draw on them). That reassured me a little and I started inking.
It took hours for the first drawing and I didn't improve very quickly. My lines were shaky and unsure on the first few drawings. The brush pen was unruly but ended up being far more like a brush than a pen. Once I figured that out, my lines began to loosen up and flow more freely. It took about 8-10 drawings before I started to feel like I was getting the hang of the brush pen, but on the bright side, after doing thirty drawings, I've now had enough practice that I'm starting to feel comfortable with it. I'm not a master by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm not struggling like I was at the beginning. Brush pen skill +1!
As I finished the inking, I laid out each piece on the floor where the sketches had been, however, unlike with the pencil sketches, I was less pleased with the results of the inking. The drawings had little to no blacks and therefore poor value balance. I knew going into it that the drawings would be very open, but somehow the results were less pleasing than I'd hoped. I couldn't tell you what it was I was expecting. Bolder lines, more coverage with the pen? I'm not sure, but things weren't lining up with the beautiful images in my imagination.
This presented a new question: did I want to change things? Should I go back and add blacks or more lines? Should I do something else entirely? I felt good about the compositions of the drawings and the series as a whole, but I wasn't feeling like my finished work was so great after all. One of the hardest won skills for any type of artist is knowing when to stop working on something. Knowing how far you can push a piece or when you should let it be is a surprisingly difficult, yet critical, sense to develop. I had to decide if I wanted to spend more time on this series than I'd allotted for and if that time would make a difference in the end. You can always go over your work, but should you? Therein lies the rub.
In the end I decided it was best to finish the series as it was and move on to the next project. I struggle a lot with perfectionism, so this was particularly painful, but I realized that I'd learned a fair bit on this project and not just a new skill with the brush pen. I'd learned a lot about working on a project this size, about line, composition and process as well. All things I could take with me to the next project. Plus I'd be able to finish something and share it instead of letting it drive me crazy. I hope that there are a few people out there who will like what I've done and will be glad that I crossed the finish line. Hopefully they'll like what I've done enough that they'll keep following me as I continue down this weird and wonderful path I'm treading with my art. I'm not quite sure where I'm going. Oh sure, there's a picture in my head of a fine destination, but as we've seen, that vision isn't usually where things end up. And sometimes that's alright. (Shown below: Hazel on the right, my first attempt at inking, and Blackavar on the left, one of the last.)
You can see the full Watership Down series on Facebook and Tumblr (also on Instagram and Twitter, though you may have to scroll). I've also written an article detailing the creation of a single drawing from the series, if you are interesting in the more technical side of my creations.